This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 1, 2009 - State Senate Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, today announced that he plans to sponsor a bill that would create a new legislative post: An independent investigator serving under the Legislature's Ethics Commission.
Shields, who is well-respected in the Capitol and is close to Gov. Jay Nixon, said he wants to "help improve Missouri’s ethical climate among elected officials."
Shields added that his actions are prompted by the recent resignations of former state Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, and two state House members from the St. Louis area -- Steve Brown and T. D. El-Amin -- after all three pleaded guilty to federal felony charges.
(El-Amin is to be sentenced Dec. 14 on a bribery conviction. Smith was recently sentenced to 12 months and a day in prison, and Brown placed on probation, because of obstruction of justice convictions in connection with Smith's unsuccessful 2004 bid for Congress.)
Shields' proposed bill also will call for:
- Barring lobbyist contributions to incumbent officials during the legislative session;
- Expanding income reporting requirements to include legislative staff.
Referring to the ethics issues that ensnared Smith, Brown and El-Amin, Shields said:< “Ethics violations are unacceptable, especially because of the damage they cause to the public’s trust in our democratic process, I believe we should continue to build on reforms we passed in 2007 by bringing even more transparency and accountability to the process in every way we can.”
The Senate bill, he said, "would create the Office of Independent Investigation within the Ethics Commission to investigate potential ethics violations and file ethics complaints. Complaints filed by the office would continue to be handled in the same manner as they currently are handled."
“By creating this office, we would bring a new level of accountability to Missouri,” Shields said. “Currently, it is up to citizens to file complaints, but this would mean we would have a full-time independent office dedicated solely to investigating and filing ethics complaints.”
Regarding the lobbyist contribution curbs, Shields said: "The measure would also bar lobbyists from contributing to any incumbent legislator’s candidate committee, incumbent governor's candidate committee, any continuing committee, or any campaign committee during the regular session of the General Assembly that runs from January to May. The prohibition would also apply to any incumbent governor's candidate committee or and any continuing or campaign committee when legislation from the regular session awaits gubernatorial action."
The bill defines a lobbyist "as someone who is employed to influence legislation on a regular basis."
“We should work to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest and you can’t do that if you continue to allow campaign contributions while the Legislature is in session,” Shields said.
There would be an exemption, he said, for incumbents seeking office in a special election.
The courts tossed out in the mid-1990s a similar ban on money-raising during the legislative session. Shields maintains that his is different -- and more likely to stand up to court muster -- because it doesn't apply to challengers, as did that earlier proposed ban.
"The final provision would require all employees and staff of the General Assembly, including employees of the majority and minority caucuses of both chambers, to file yearly financial interest statements disclosing supplemental income received totaling $5,000 or more. The disclosure must include the source of the income and the general nature of the business conducted."
Shields said disclosure by staff is required because "of the close nature and influence staff can have on the lawmakers they work for, we should hold our staff to the same standards of income disclosures that we as elected officials adhere to — adding an additional layer of accountability and transparency.”